Paul Bowles

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

Paul Bowles was born to Rena Winnewisser Bowles, a homemaker, and Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist, on December 30, 1910, in the borough of Queens, New York City. His father was, as Bowles later recalled, a bad-tempered man, easily given to child beatings to enforce his will. Perhaps it was fortunate, then, that Paul’s father was so addicted to his golf game that he was away from home on weekends whenever the weather permitted. Rena Bowles excused her husband’s child abuse, but she showered attention on her son, devoting considerable time to reading poetry and playing music for him. She realized Paul had artistic proclivities and wanted to encourage them.

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Like many creative young people who are abused, however, Paul retreated into himself, refusing to socialize with other children and, out of spite, beating weaker classmates symbolically to get revenge on those who beat him at school. His life was hellish, but it did encourage him to develop his creative powers.

After finishing secondary school in New York in 1928, he attended New York’s School of Design and Liberal Arts for a matter of months, then went on to the University of Virginia; he stayed there only six months, however, before leaving for Paris in 1929. He went to Paris at the behest of famous composer Aaron Copland, and in Paris he discovered not only what pursuits he would follow but also where he would spend most of the remainder of his life: in Morocco. It would take another trip home to New York, then another semester of studies at the University of Virginia before he would become a true expatriate. The restless young man traveled to Berlin in 1931 and 1932, where he studied music under another great composer, Virgil Thomson.

Nevertheless, it was Bowles’s return to Paris in 1933 (he would stay there for a year) that gave him his twin missions in life: He would compose serious music and he would write. While he was there, either Gertrude Stein, American expatriate novelist, or her lover, Alice B. Toklas (the story varies), advised him to find the perpetual summer weather he craved as well as the splendid isolation from Western ways he also sought by moving to Morocco. In 1937, he turned to writing music in Tangier, Morocco, a small but highly international city across from Spain on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he turned his attention to composing scores for Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke (pr. 1947, pb. 1948) and The Glass Menagerie (pr. 1944, pb. 1945), among other plays, he never forgot what he was advised to do with his life when he lived in Paris: to write.

Though he had written reviews for the New York Herald Tribune as well as experimented with poetry, Bowles did not do any sustained writing until 1938, when he married another talented writer, Jane Auer, who as a girl had spent several years abroad. It was her encouragement and example that enabled Bowles to focus upon writing rather than musical composition. Their relationship lasted until her death in 1973. It was apparently a combination of opposites—she, the emotional one and he, the cool, distant one.

In 1949, Bowles created the work for which he is best known, The Sheltering Sky, a magnificent depiction of the lack of real communication between people that brought Bowles significant recognition from critics such as Gore Vidal, who became a staunch advocate of Bowles’s prose. Let It Come Down (1952), another novel, furthered Bowles’s preoccupation with the horrors of life lived inauthentically and the drugged ennui of Western urbanites faced with life as it is lived in Morocco. Upon its publication, comparisons were made between his work and that of French existentialists Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre.

A third novel, The Spider’s House (1955), is a lament for a vanishing way of life and a celebration of the Morocco that was passing away under Western influence, influence which Bowles despised.

The novella Up Above the World (1966), which deals with the brutal murder of North Americans by a South American psychotic bent on getting rid of any witnesses to a murder he perpetrated, also included what was by now becoming Bowles’s literary signature: a depiction of the violent meeting between the oversophisticated, soft Westerner and the life-hardened, primitive native of a developing nation.

An autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), followed; its title gave succinct testimony to the pattern of Bowles’s life, a life in motion and a life in flight. This work explained his preoccupations, but it did not clarify much about his private life. Along with his acclaimed novels, Bowles wrote short stories and novellas after he moved to Morocco in the 1930’s, and some of them have received as much attention as his longer works. In 1950 came his short-story collection The Delicate Prey, and Other Stories, followed by a novella, The Time of Friendship (1967), and two more collections of stories, Pages from Cold Point, and Other Stories (1968) and Midnight Mass (1981). In these strange tales of life in lands far distant from the United States, he deepens his development of the thesis that there is no real order in the natural world—that people are usually prey to one another and to natural forces beyond their control.

The Collected Stories of Paul Bowles, 1939-1976 (1979) offers readers many of his best tales, all of which demonstrate the cruel ferocity of nature and those living closest to it. His naïve Westerners pay heavily for their ignorance about or condescension toward such people. In addition, Bowles published a collection of poems titled Next to Nothing: Collected Poems, 1926-1977 (1981).

Throughout his life’s work, Bowles explored the terrain of the countries about which he wrote, carefully interweaving sights, smells, and sounds in ways one might expect from a person with so much musical talent. Certainly, Bowles showed no remorse in having abandoned American life, which he considered no life at all. It was primarily Morocco that gave him the raw material of his art.

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